They were madmen, but they had in them that little flame which never dies.
The Museum of Modern Art is far from a blameless institution. For all the brilliance of its permanent collection or the triumphs of its special exhibitions, the museum has built itself into a fortress of modernism. Its over-expanded campus now conveys all the joys of an airport terminal. From the modernist evangelism of its Rockefeller beginnings, the museum has come to resemble a corporate juggernaut eager for its next leveraged buyout, with one adjacent building after the other falling under its control. As a zealous acquisition program continues to add to its holdings, its legal team fights off Holocaust restitution claims made on its collection. Then there is MOMA’s director, Glenn D. Lowry, who lives rent-free in a $6-million apartment in the museum’s residential tower while collecting a CEO-level payment package topping several million dollars a year in salary, trust income, and other benefits. For anyone concerned about the legacy of this institution, these numbers are impossible to reconcile against a faltering economy and the museum’s ever-rising admission price, which recently increased to a mandatory twenty-five dollars.
When a division of Occupy Wall Street set out to “Occupy Museums” on October 20, the Occupationists knew they had an easy target in moma. Yet like the Occupy movement in general, this particular protest made little attempt to expose new details of the museum’s operations or to promote realistic institutional reform. Led by an artist named Noah Fischer, who often wears a mask shaped like a large quarter, the Occupationists instead outlined their position through a manifesto. “The game is up,” they declared:
we see through the pyramid schemes of the temples of cultural elitism controlled by the 1%. No longer will we, the artists of the 99%, allow ourselves to be tricked into accepting a corrupt hierarchical system based on false scarcity and propaganda concerning absurd elevation of one individual genius over another human being for the monetary gain of the elitest of elite. . . . The Occupywallstreet Movement will bring forth an era of new art, true experimentation outside the narrow parameters set by the market. Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are at your door!
On the afternoon of October 20, after occupying the uptown Number 4 Train from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, a dozen or so Occupationists stationed themselves in front of the museum entrance. Their protest was tame, even lame, by Occupationist standards, but it was revealing of the movement’s trajectory.
“Purge the world of bourgeois sickness! Purge the world of dead art!” Quoted from the dead movements of art history (in this case, Fluxus), the slogans of their protest were not about to reform Holocaust restitution law. They would not even knock a dollar off Glenn Lowry’s dry cleaning bill.
Occupy Wall Street has been energized by a host of grievances. Yet the Occupationists have never offered realistic solutions because “what they want” misses the point. As the “Liberty Square Blueprint,” a wiki-page of defining principles edited by several hundred Occupationists, has argued, “Demands cannot reflect inevitable success. Demands imply condition, and we will never stop. Demands cannot reflect the time scale that we are working with.” Instead, the movement finds its solution in the process rather than the products of its Occupation. Occupy Museums was one small act of this pageantry.
Occupy Wall Street is but the latest revival of a spectacle that has been performed many times before—not necessarily in the Arab Spring, which saw regimes toppled through political means, but in certain incarnations of idealistic vision that emerged out of a seventy-two-day experiment in Paris nearly a century and a half ago. Before there were the Tompkins Square Park riots, the student takeovers of 1968, or Occupy Wall Street, there was the Paris Commune of 1871.
The Commune was born in a moment not unlike our own. After the extravagant Second Empire of Napoleon III came crashing down in the Franco-Prussian War, the establishment of the Third Republic left French radicals with unrealistic expectations for the new government. “A majority of the Republicans in the 1870s proved to be more conservative than they had been under the Liberal Empire, even less interested in social reform than before,” writes Roger L. Williams in his French Revolution of 1870–1871.
On March 18, two generals from the new government entered Paris and ascended Montmartre to recover cannon left over from the Prussian siege. A Parisian militia, along with some regular soldiers, turned on the generals and executed them. Local women desecrated their corpses. In The Terrible Year: The Paris Commune, 1871, reissed as The Fall of Paris, The Seige and The Commune, 1870-1871 (Penguin), Alistair Horne recounts how “maenads from the mob squatted and urinated upon them.” Many years later, the Sacré-Cœur basilica would memorialize their deaths and the thousands that followed, including the death of the Archbishop of Paris, murdered in cold blood.
As the Republican government fled, the city created its own communal government. Rather than merely reestablish municipal services, the Commune attempted to inaugurate a “new political era, experimental, positive, scientific,” declared by manifesto: “It is the end of the old government and clerical world, of militarism, of monopolists, of privileges to which the proletariat owes its servitude, the Nation its miseries and disasters.”
The barricades went up, and the Commune set about becoming an idealistic autonomous body inside the French state with much to hope for and little that could actually be done. Among its few lackluster achievements was the suppression of pawnshops and the prohibition of night-baking, reducing “all Paris to stale bread.” As Lord Elton writes in The Revolutionary Idea in France: 1789–1871: “Upon one thing they were in substantial agreement—the principle of the Commune. The principle of the Commune was the indispensable preliminary to the new Revolution. . . . The Commune was revolutionary not because of what it did but because of what it claimed.”
Caught in the middle of the euphoria was Gustave Courbet, by then a celebrated Realist in his early fifties. “For Courbet, the Commune was, all too briefly, the fulfillment of his dreams of a government without oppressive, domineering institutions, the Proudhonian Utopia of social justice come true,” explains the leftist art historian Linda Nochlin. Yet for all of this idealism, Courbet’s legacy during this brief period only proved to be destructive for himself and for the arts of Paris.
Already tapped to be the head of the city’s Federation of Artists, in April and early May 1871 Courbet set about suppressing the Academy, the École des Beaux-Arts, and the Schools of Rome and of Athens. A May 10 report dedicated his Federation’s efforts to the “radical rejection of the authoritarian principle which has been the very essence of the former administrations.”
The episode of the Vendôme Column became his undoing. A year before, Courbet had petitioned the government to tear down the monument, which Napoleon I had modeled after Trajan’s Column in Rome to memorialize the French victory at Austerlitz. “I wanted to have that mass of melted cannon that perpetuates the tradition of conquest, of looting, and of murder removed from your street,” said Courbet.
On April 12, the Commune agreed and set about engineering its destruction. Late in the afternoon of May 16, with its foundation undermined and cables pulling on its sides, the Column crashed down to the street and broke into several pieces as a band performed for the assembled crowd.
Courbet’s glory was short lived. When French troops entered the city two weeks later, the government suppressed the uprising and killed an estimated 20,000 Communards. Courbet fled but was arrested soon after. The artist’s fame quickly turned to infamy. After a brief prison term, Courbet went into exile in Switzerland, and in 1874 the French courts ordered him to pay to resurrect the Column. After the artist lost on appeal, the government billed him 323,091.68 francs to be paid in 10,000 franc yearly installments. His work in France was seized and liquidated through a fire sale at the Hôtel Drouot. Despondent and struggling to pay his debt, the artist drank himself to death a few days after the sale on December 31, 1877.
Courbet was lucky to have survived the Commune at all, even as he eventually gave his life over to an uprising that offered him nothing in return. “Even those who were to die unhesitatingly beneath its red standards could hardly give a coherent definition,” Horne writes, “and today one’s fingers clutch awkwardly at vague slogans, conflicting ideologies and nebulous abstractions.”
For those of us who watch from the sidelines, the Occupy Wall Street movement may appear sympathetic to our own concerns. At the very least, it seems to offer a safety valve for others to vent their frustrations. Yet the history of idealistic occupations suggests this will also end poorly, with a polarized public and the movement collapsing in ruin.
Like the Commune, Occupy Wall Street is about the perfection of itself rather than the reform of others. This is a reason that the Occupationists differ from other protesters who go home at the end of a long march. For the Occupation, the tents do not come down until perfection is attained or destroyed.
The heart of OWS is therefore in its internal mechanics, especially its strictly “non-hierarchical” code of conduct. The manifestations of this code might appear foolish, but they emerge from a formula meant to challenge if not supplant our current system of government with the Occupation’s own forms of egalitarian command and control, a formula that grOWS ever more doctrinaire and insular for those who practice it. Many of these devices are still being developed in the “General Assemblies” of Occupationist cells. OWS already employs several to limit open speech, especially when the purity of the Occupation is confronted by the impurities of our existing laws and precedent.
The repudiation of American law at the heart of OWS means that the Occupation is not just another voluntary association or another utopian community with its own set of parliamentary procedures. The Occupationists have never acknowledged the right of Brookfield Properties, the private owners Zuccotti Park, to announce their own rules for the use of the park. Nor do they recognize the right of city government to ask that the park be vacated to allow for proper sanitation—a role that the Occupationists had theatrically taken on themselves with questionable results. This denial is only now coming to a head as police reassert authority over the encampments. The routine call and response of OWS—“Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!” and “Whose park? Our park!”—is revealing in that the rhetoric of OWS always circles back in on itself. To the Occupationists, they are what democracy looks like, and the rest of us are not what democracy looks like. They have the right to occupy whatever space they choose, while the rest of us, including our agents in law enforcement, do not.
The first Occupy Museums of October 20 presented another venue for the Occupationists to assert this sense of entitlement. They took up their positions at moma in a circle facing inwards rather than out. Since their interests are mainly insular, their speeches ultimately concerned themselves. As different protesters came up to the top of the “stack,” or what OWS calls its list of approved speakers, each statement was repeated line by line by the rest of the Occupationists. “Mic check” is the Occupation’s code commanding the crowd to repeat whatever a speaker says, from “Down with bourgeois art” to “Have you seen my cell phone charger?” A complex system of arm and finger waving is another development.
OWS may claim that these practices came out of the need to broadcast a speaker’s words in a park that does not permit megaphones. In a small gathering like the one at Occupy Museums, it merely serves to channel speech into a cult-like spectacle of repetition and hand-signals, all the while drowning out opposing voices.
The painter Loren Munk, who creates YouTube videos under the pseudonym James Kalm, is an artist who has gone against the grain by questioning the intentions of the Occupation. Recently he has turned his lens from documenting museum and gallery openings to filing reports from the barricades. After stumbling upon Occupy’s Brooklyn Bridge protest of October 3 while riding his bicycle from his home in Red Hook to Manhattan, Munk has uploaded over a dozen videos of the Occupation to his YouTube page called “Rough Cuts” under the title of “Resist we much: a continuing critique of Occupy Wall Street.” By questioning the protesters in ad-hoc video exchanges, Munk has sought to expose what he sees as the inconsistencies and dangers of the movement.
Munk’s presence at the first Occupy Museums protest, seen in a video he posted on YouTube on October 21, proved to be illuminating. About eight minutes into the video, as Munk narrates into his camera from the protest circle, the Occupationists attempt to silence his report.
“We need to speak together,” Noah Fischer admonishes—a statement, like everything spoken in this exchange, immediately repeated by the group through the “human microphone.”
“I’m not part of the group. I’m the 1%,” Munk responds.
“Then why are you on this side of the barrier?” demands the group.
“Because the 1% has the right to be where they want to be, right? Isn’t that what freedom is all about?”
“We have a process. In our process we don’t talk while other people are speaking. You are welcome to stay here. But you need to honor the process.”
“What happens if I don’t honor the process?”
“Then nothing gets accomplished.”
Another Occupationist went on “to point out to this gentleman who has joined us, who decided to shout over us and not respect the process, that he clearly demonstrates that he is part of the 1% in using his voice to try and drown out the voices of others who are trying to use a democratic means of communication.”
The protesters’ indignation at being interrupted on a public sidewalk might seem ironic if not laughable. When you realize that Munk’s words are regarded as unsanctioned and unprotected by the Occupation’s own codes, then Occupy Wall Street takes on a frightening aspect for anyone—artists especially—who speak out in ways that do not advance the Occupation’s own political processes.
Perhaps no image illustrates the vision of the Occupation better than the poster used to promote the initial encampment of September 17. Created by Adbusters, an anti-capitalist Canadian magazine dedicated to “culture-jamming,” the poster features a female dancer balanced on the head of the Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull, the statue on Bowling Green that has come to represent the Wall Street bull market. In the background, obscured by dust and tear gas, is a charging scrum of riot police wielding clubs and pushing towards the center.
“To me it was a sublime symbol of total clarity,” says Kalle Lasn, the Estonian-born founder of Adbusters.
Here’s a body poised in this beautiful position and it spoke of this crystal-clear sublime idea behind this messy business. On top of the head it said, “What is our one demand?” To me it was almost like an invitation, like if we get our act together then we can launch a revolution. It had this magical revolutionary feel to it, which you couldn’t have with the usual lefty poster which is nasty and visceral and in your face. The magic came from the fact this ballerina is so sublimely tender.
Yet like the riot police charging towards the dancer, the “magic” of the sublime moment is predicated on its eventual destruction. From the start, the founders of OWS have hoped that its idealism would end in confrontation. After two months of delay, the city’s new enforcement, initiated during the police clearing of Zuccotti on November 15, will undoubtedly play into the Occupation’s own eschatology, endtimes that have only just begun, although the surgical NYPD operation did not give the Occupationists the bloody finale they may have sought.
Whenever Lenin wanted to suggest the success of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, he compared it to the mythical seventy-two days of the Paris Commune of 1871. For Lenin, the seventy-third day of Bolshevism became “Commune plus one.” “All through his life,” writes Horne, “Lenin studied the Commune: worshipped its heroism, analyzed its successes, criticized its faults, and compared its failures with the failures of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905.” At his death, Lenin’s body was wrapped in the red Communard flag.
In 1964, a Soviet Voskhod even rocketed to space carrying a shred of an original Communard banner. By restarting a clock that ran for a couple of months in a Paris spring, the Communists consigned tens of millions of people to death and ruined half the nations of Europe. They then saw fit to celebrate these achievements by sending the Paris Commune into space before, eventually, their own idealistic creation came crashing down to Earth.
Marx called the Commune the first “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Lenin’s Bolsheviks identified closely with the Commune and shared the same name. Yet the Communists were far from the last to be taken in by its myth.
There is an undeniable romance in doomed idealism, even if the ends are worse than the beginnings. The deadliest form of idealism invites its own ruin, either from outside or within, so that the purity of the ideal can be measured against the severity of its destruction—cataclysm as a defense against compromise. “The Commune ruled for a brief seventy days before expiring in a holocaust of fire and bloodshed far in excess of anything perpetrated during the Great Revolution of 1789,” writes Horne, “but it left behind an indelible mark that was to spread far beyond the boundaries of France.”
The legacy of the Commune was an idealistic promise that can never be fulfilled. To resurrect the Commune therefore means to restart the countdown to ruin. Herein lies the deadly mechanics of the Commune and the movements it inspires. Listen closely and most of the failed idealism of the last century has the tick of that Commune clock, from the terror of China to Cambodia to many smaller time bombs including, now, Occupy Wall Street.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 4, on page 22
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